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Barton takes dim view of federal light bulb policy

03/21/2011 11:02 PM

03/22/2011 4:20 PM

The light bulb you grew up with likely won't be the light bulb you'll grow old with unless U.S. Rep. Joe Barton has his way.

The Arlington Republican is spearheading an effort to tell Congress to keep its hands off everyone's light bulbs, trying to repeal a section of a 2007 energy independence act geared to start phasing out 100-watt incandescent light bulbs next year.

The act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, would essentially remove incandescent light bulbs by 2014, leaving consumers to mostly use the swirled, compact fluorescent bulbs.

"This is about more than just energy consumption," Barton said. "Voters sent us a message in November that it is time for politicians and activists in Washington to stop interfering in their lives and manipulating the free market.

"The light bulb ban is the perfect symbol of that frustration," he said. "People don't want Congress dictating what light fixtures they can use."

Supporters say the bulb change is about advancing technology, saving energy and money, and helping the environment.

Energy Star statistics show that if one light bulb in every American home were replaced with an Energy Star-approved compact fluorescent, enough energy would be saved to light 3 million U.S. homes a year, reduce energy costs by about $600 million and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, the amount generated by about 800,000 cars.

"Replacing all the nation's inefficient bulbs with energy-efficient ones will save as much electricity annually as that consumed by all the homes in Texas," said the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group.

New standards

The new rule doesn't completely ban incandescent light bulbs but creates new standards for the bulbs, such as requiring 100-watt bulbs to be 25 percent more efficient. After that, similar changes will go into effect for 75-, 60- and 40-watt bulbs.

Some companies are designing new bulbs, but last year, General Electric shut the doors on its last major U.S. plant, in Virginia, that makes incandescent bulbs. Most compact fluorescents are made in Asia. Energy Department officials say traditional bulbs waste as much as 90 percent of their energy as heat. Officials say replacing a 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 13-watt compact fluorescent light bulb can save a household at least $30 in energy costs during the life of that bulb -- which can be 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb's. Many incandescent bulbs last 750 to 1,000 hours.

Fluorescent bulbs can cost more than $3 each; incandescent bulbs can cost as little as 35 cents each.

"Traditional incandescent bulbs are cheap and reliable," Barton said. "From the health insurance you're allowed to have, to the car you can drive, to the light bulbs you can buy, Washington is making too many decisions that are better left to you and your family."

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, is carrying the bill in the Senate. "Thomas Edison wouldn't be happy if he knew that Congress was essentially banning his invention," he has said.

But Kyle Pitsor, vice president of government relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said requiring the change makes sense.

"The reality is that consumer preference already has been shifting away from incandescent products, with the market for standard household incandescent bulbs declining by 50 percent over the last five years or so," Pitsor said.

Health concerns

Some leaders say they are concerned about compact fluorescents because they contain mercury, a toxic metal linked to birth defects and behavioral disorders. The Environmental Protection Agency has said the average bulb has 4 to 5 milligrams of mercury, enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen.

No mercury is emitted while the bulbs are in use, but vapors can escape if a bulb is broken.

"Exposing our citizens to the harmful effects of the mercury contained in CFL light bulbs, which are being manufactured in China, is likely to pose a hazard for years to come," U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, has said.

Opponents of Barton's bill say there is too little mercury to be much of a concern.

"We understand concerns about mercury, but people are only exposed if the bulb breaks and the amount is one one-hundredth what you would find in an old-fashioned thermometer," Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based energy independence organization, has said.

Energy savings

Barton is working to get a hearing on the bill scheduled in the House. The Senate version has been heard by the Energy and Resources Committee.

But many customers don't know that they may soon have to buy different light bulbs, said Alex Duran, a salesman at the Fort Worth Lighting Co.

"Most people who walk in here don't know about it," he said. But once employees tell them the changes that lie ahead, "they're not very happy. They blame the government for it."

Duran said that the store is receiving more shipments of compact fluorescents and that an increasing number of lighting fixtures are configured to hold the fluorescents.

"It does save a little more energy, but everyone grew up with incandescent light bulbs," Duran said. "They grew up with the natural light."

The Natural Resources Defense Council said it's time to change.

The bills to revoke the 2007 law "would push aside innovation, derail plans for new job-creating lighting factories and eliminate an estimated $10 billion in annual energy cost savings -- taking as much as $200 a year out of the checkbooks of every U.S. household," a council statement said.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

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